Causes, therapy, when to see a physician

Imagine: dawn is breaking and it’s time to wake up. You reach over to calm your alarm clock, reach out your arms to greet the day, and try to open your sleepy eyes … only to find that your eyelids are held together by a crunchy glue-like substance.

Sound familiar?

Sleep crust, also called eye gunk or rheum, is quite common. This mixture of mucus, tears, and skin cells occurs naturally when you sleep.

There is definitely a spectrum of normal, everyday eye candy and sleeping crust that signals that something is wrong. We’ll let you know what this stuff is, why it appears on your eyelids in the morning, and how to take care of it.

What do we mean by crusty eyes? Crusty eyes in the morning can have any of the following symptoms:

  • white, off-white, or light yellow crust that has collected in the corners of the eyelids when you wake up
  • Eyelashes sticking together with watery or solid discharge from your eyes
  • Irritation, redness, and a cinematic layer around your eyes when you first open them

Read on to find out what is normal when it comes to eye crust and when to be concerned.

Chances are, the sleeping crust in your eyes is completely normal and part of your body’s amazing self-regulating cleansing system.

Natural causes

During the day, blinking removes dust, old cells, extra mucus, and tears from your eyes. Don’t blink while you sleep, but these waste products are still being washed out of your eyes.

Some nights (and most nights for some people) there may be enough to create a crusty film on the eyelids. If you have allergies, you may notice an extra crust on the eyes at certain times of the year. This still falls within the realm of a natural cause.


Blepharitis is the technical term for eyelid inflammation. Blepharitis has several possible causes, but one of the symptoms could be a particularly crusty discharge from your eyes during the night.

Eye redness or irritation, eyelids sticking together, or flakes of skin at the base of your eyelid may indicate blepharitis. Blepharitis usually affects only one eye at a time.


Conjunctivitis (pink eye) is any type of inflammation that affects your conjunctiva. This is a thin membrane that lines part of your eye.

Conjunctivitis can be bacterial or viral. It can also be related to allergies or environmental factors. If you have a pink eye, you may notice that extra crust is building up in the corner of your eye. It can cause a watery discharge to build up in your eye and a gritty feeling between your eyelids.

Conjunctivitis can be in one eye or both.

Eye sponge

Sties are infected or inflamed oil glands or follicles in your eyelid. A pigsty can be painful and cause yellow mucus to build up in the corners of your eyes.

When you have a pigsty, you will usually find that only one of your eyes becomes particularly crusty.

Clogged tear duct

A blocked tear duct prevents your eyes from draining normally. If you have this condition, you may find that small balls of yellow or white mucus collect around the corner of your eye. Other symptoms include redness, irritation, pain, and swelling in the eyelid.

Dry eye

If you have chronic (or even occasional) dry eye, your eye may produce thread-like mucus. This can lead to a build-up of eye crust that is gritty or sticky.

If the eye crust is your only symptom, you can likely treat it at home.

The American Academy of Ophthalmology makes it a point to wash your hands before attempting to rub your eyes in the morning. It’s hard to resist the impulse to simply wipe the crust off your eyes, but your hands often carry bacteria and germs.

Try a clean washcloth with warm water instead of using your bare (dirty) hands. Apply the washcloth gently to your eyes and most of the eye crusts will dissipate on their own. You may need to be patient and leave the washcloth on for a few minutes to completely cleanse your eye.

If your eyes feel gritty or dry after wiping the crust, you can use eye drops to moisturize your eyeballs and prepare for the day. Moisturizing eye drops or saline solutions are available over the counter and can cleanse your eye of any remaining film or debris.

Some symptoms suggest it is time to go beyond home remedies and see an ophthalmologist. These symptoms include:

  • any kind of pain in your eye
  • Redness and irritation in your eye
  • Difficulty opening the eye due to eye injuries or otherwise
  • green or dark yellow eye discharge
  • Photosensitivity
  • blurred vision

Your eye doctor will do an initial exam to determine what is causing your symptoms. If necessary, your doctor may prescribe prescription eye drops or antibiotics to treat any type of infection or inflammation, such as blepharitis or conjunctivitis. Chronic dry eye can also be treated with eye drops.

If you take good care of your eyes, you may find that when you wake up in the morning you will notice fewer eyebrows greetings. Here are some tips for eyelid hygiene:

Tips on eyelid hygiene

  • Always wash your face before bed and gently wash your eye area with a clean, cool washcloth (avoid using soap or detergent on the eye area).
  • Thoroughly remove eye makeup before handing it in for the night. To do this, use an eye make-up remover and a cotton pad or make-up removal wipe on the area around your eyes.
  • Avoid touching and rubbing your eyes as much as you can throughout the day and make sure your hands have been recently washed if you need to touch your eyes.
  • Remove your contact lenses before you go to bed for the night and do not try to extend the life of your contacts beyond the manufacturer’s recommendations.

If you wake up with a sleeping crust in your eyes, it is most likely the result of your eyes performing their completely natural and healthy daily cleansing ritual.

However, if you have a lot of crust accumulating on one eye specifically, if you find that your eye crust is a strange color, or if you have symptoms of itching or redness, you may have a different health condition.

Your eyes are a highly complex and sensitive organ. So, if you are concerned about your health, speak to a doctor right away.

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